Wu Changlu: spreading the sound of
When Wu Changlu was 9 years old living in a small city in Jiangsu province, her teacher took two talented young students to the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music to try their luck on a music career.
As an afterthought at the last minute, Wu was asked to go too.
Without any preparation, Wu played a simple folk tune Liuyang River on the pipa, a piece for beginners, while other children played much more sophisticated music to show off their talents.
To her astonishment, she was picked. “This girl exhibited good musical sense,” said the school’s pipa master.
So started Wu on a lifelong path of music.
That was in 1978, when universities were resuming admissions after a prolonged break during the Cultural Revolution. Competition was fierce for art schools.
“Only 41 students were admitted from thousands of candidates,” Wu said. “Each admitted student had to go through a lengthy process and be personally approved by the Minister of Culture in Beijing. I was given a stipend of 3,000 yuan ($466.7) a year, plus free tuition and lodging. That money was much more than the average annual salary at the time, when most people made less than 100 yuan a month.
Wu spent more than 10 years learning music before she graduated from the conservatory. “I am very grateful for the opportunity. It was free, we were well provided for, and we had the best professors. We could play whichever instrument we fancied,” said Wu.
Wu’s pipa practice at a tender age was captured in the film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, which won the 1980 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Toward the end of her studies at the conservatory, Wu often shared the stage with the professors at various events.
Fresh out of school in the early 1990s, Wu went to the University of Houston to study piano.
“It was like another window was opened for me,” she said. “I learned more about music history, its background, and its meaning. On Chopin alone I had read more than 40 books. In China, the focus was mostly on technique alone. The training at UH expanded my horizons, integrated what I know about music and deepened my undersGengding of music.”
The pipa has always been Wu’s passion, but it was not so wellreceived in Houston.
“I remember when I first came to Houston, the community was organizing a concert at Rice University. Someone suggested inviting me to play the pipa. However, one organizer commented: ‘This is a high-class concert and we would not want a pipa there.’ It’s unbelievable that the pipa was viewed as a low-class instrument,” said Wu.
In 1995, Wu participated in the George Foreman International Musical Talent Showcase in Houston. She won top prize on the pipa and performed at the Wortham Theatre for an audience of more than 2,000. “Many of them were hearing the pipa for the first time. I felt so proud to introduce this traditional Chinese instrument to Houston,” said Wu.
When she graduated from UH, her husband Max Zhang wanted to buy her a new car. She asked for his financial support to hold a solo pipa concert as a graduation gift instead.
With members of Houston Symphony as accompanists, Wu’s pipa concert in 1996 at UH turned out to be a huge success. “We made a few thousand dollars, which we donated to the Chinese Civic Center,” said Wu.
Wu has often appeared on local TV stations and events to promote the pipa and other traditional Chinese instruments. In 2003, when then-President George W. Bush was meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in College Station, Wu was the only Chinese musician invited to play at the summit.
“I played the pipa as well as the guzhen, all Chinese instruments,” said Wu.
Wu is pleased with how the pipa is so well-received now in Houston. In 2008, she was invited by the Fort Bend Symphony to play a pipa concerto. This year, her performance of the pipa concerto was featured in three concerts of the Houston Symphony. All of the pieces were arranged by Wu herself.
Working with young people is another pursuit Wu has undertaken to promote Chinese traditional instruments. Since 1996, she has worked with the national Young Audience program. In 2012, she founded the North American Youth Chinese Orchestra (NAYCO), teaching young people various Chinese instruments.
In three short years, NAYCO has gained recognition in Houston. In Jan 2015 when the Houston Symphony hosted the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra, a world-class ensemble from Beijing, NAYCO had a solid two-hour seminar with the masters, who, in turn, were impressed by the young people’s talent.
The Houston Symphony has invited NAYCO to join its Music Day event for the last two years. NAYCO also was invited to open a concert featuring pianist Lang Lang by the Houston Symphony earlier this year.
Pipa virtuoso Wu Changlu.